The Tragedy of Tommy Sheridan
FOR one well-known socialist and his family, this Xmas holiday of festive cheer and goodwill is overshadowed by gloom, and it must be a matter of sadness for us all. Tommy Sheridan, the hero who went to jail for his struggles against the Tory poll tax and nuclear bases, and was the darling of the Left, is facing a prison sentence in the New Year, not for his principles, but for perjury.
It is a tragedy, notwithstanding its moments of farce, and one which worked out towards its increasingly inevitable end. Its hero took on Rupert Murdoch's right-wing media empire, represented by the News of the World, and much to everyone's delight he won. And then, as we might have feared, he faced them in a second round, and lost.
Tommy Sheridan joined Militant, when he was 17 and it was tucked well into the Labour Party. He was one of those who broke to form Scottish Militant Labour, which developed via the Scottish Socialist Alliance into the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). In the changing political conditions of a Scottish Parliament, and then an unpopular warmongering Labour government, the SSP took on both Scottish Nationalists and Labour from the Left. It inspired socialists south of the border with the prospect of a party to the left of Labour being able to overcome the permanent squabbling factionalism of the Left and root itself in the working class, winning popular support.
Tommy Sheridan seemed to typify what the SSP had and the Left in general lacked, a popular, even charismatic figure, to whose socialism ordinary working folk could relate, he had a strong base in Glasgow's working-class Pollok area, from whence he came. George McNeilage and Keith Baldassara , his best friend and the best man at his wedding, were his "eyes and ears in Pollok" while he was in prison, Sheridan boasted, they were dedicated to socialism - but in this recent case they became his enemies, and "traitors".
Elected to the Scottish parliament on the strength largely of his leadership in the poll tax struggle, Tommy was one of six Scottish Socialists who took their seats in Holyrood in 2003. It was like a revival of the "Red Clydeside" tradition, except the new intake were more definitely Marxist in some respects, their geographical base was wider, and some of them were women. But by their own account, he was their outstanding spokesperson, and among the most popular figures not just on the Left, but in Scotland.
As the leading figure of a campaigning socialist party opposing Blair and his war, and building its grass-roots support, Sheridan was bound to be a target for the capitalist press, which loves to build up hero figures just so it can knock them down, and especially for the pro-war Murdoch media, despised as a right-wing propaganda machine even in the United States.
The Murdoch-owned 'News of the World', once known for its prurient reporting of court cases involving indecency and cross-dressing vicars, and interviews which ended when the reporter "made an excuse and left", has moved on with more permissive times, through chequebook 'shag n'tell' journalism to using methods that have landed its own reporters in court. That's only for their targetting of establishment figures, including Royalty, never mind the left and labour movement. Tommy Sheridan is considering action against the Metropolitan Police for failing to alert him that the NoW were hacking into his mobile telephone calls.
On October 31st, 2004, the News of the World printed a story about an unnamed married MSP, saying he had visited a “swinger’s club” in an industrial estate in Manchester. Anvar Khan, a News of the World journalist who was releasing a book about her life, made various claims about the politician's tastes, some of which she has since admitted making up to spice her story.
Most people would probably not have associated any of this with Tommy Sheridan, a happily married man, respected for his dedication and integrity. Like other Scottish Socialist MSPs, he was pledged to only take an average worker's salary, so as not become alienated from his ordinary supporters. But a few close friends knew that was not the whole story. They had already tried to warn Tommy that his private life and indiscretions were risky, both for him and his family and for the party. When he seemed to take no notice, they decided to make it more formal, asking him to attend an emergency meeting of the Party’s Executive Committee, at its then office in Stanley Street, on the 9th of November.
At this meeting, Tommy apparently admitted that he had visited Cupids on two occasions, in 1996 and 2002, calling it “cheap thrills”. (an expression he has repeated after the court case). But he reckoned the NoW could not “prove anything”, and said he intended to sue them for defamation. The SSP executive did not think this was a good idea. A false defamation action could give the newspaper's allegations yet more publicity, and the case would drag members into court, and the party into disrepute. The comrades argued that if Tommy would only be prepared to either put his hands up and admit the truth, or simply say ‘no comment’ and keep his private life out of the tabloids to the best of his ability, the public would probably forgive his wild sex life, but they wouldn’t forgive him being proven a liar and a hypocrite.
Members were not happy themselves about what their leader had been up to. Concerns were raised about where the dividing line falls between a swingers’ club and a brothel -- at Cupids, women don’t pay to get in while men do. The website for Cupids was also only a few clicks away from websites where prostituted women were sold. Some members were shocked by the revelations they had heard and the unaccustomed discussion they had.
Whatever the views on this personal and political morality border, the executive unanimously decided that Sheridan ought to resign from his position of party Convenor if he insisted on bringing his false case to court. Apart from moral considerations, members had to consider what had happened to Tory MPs who had tried to take the media for libel sums and ended up serving time instead. It was hard to imagine a Socialist doing better, and for a party with just six MSPs it would be hard to dodge the fall-out when he failed.
Sheridan resigned as convenor on November 11, 2004, citing 'family reasons'. His partner Gail was expecting their first chld. The News of the World ran more articles alleging 'infidelity' and other accusations against him. Sheridan proceeded to sue.
At first, against all the odds, he seemed to have succeeded. On August 4, 2006, Sheridan stunned the NoW and his opponents by winning the libel trial by a majority verdict, winning £200,000 in damages. Seeing him and his wife walk triumphant from court, one could not help but rejoice, just as we did when George Galloway trounced his accusers at a US Senate hearing, that a socialist had taken on Murdoch's minions, and won, taking away some of the media empire's money too, which is more than the Inland Revenue manage to do.
There was a little nagging doubt though. Like that bit at the end of 'Kind Hearts and Coronets', when the hero, sprung from the death cell, remembers that he has left his written confession behind. What if the other side could get hold of the minutes of the SSP's executive? National Secretary Allan Green had taken possession of Minute Secretary Barbara Scott’s contemporaneous notes of the meeting. These were typed up into an official minute, presented to a later EC, on November 24, 2004 which voted to keep them private. A meeting of the Party's National Council backed this decision. So apparently did Tommy Sheridan, who stated then “I wholeheartedly support the SSP Executive Committee statement agreed at today’s meeting”.
A leading SSP member, Alan McCombes, who was later to be a witness against Tommy Sheridan initially went to jail for refusing to hand over the minutes, saying the party's confidentiality was a matter of principle. Later, after the party had decided to hand over the minutes, Sheridan and his supporters would variously claim these were a fake, that he had the real minutes, or that there had been no minutes, and no confession. Barbara Scott,who had been the minutes secretary, was accused of fabricating evidence and fiercely denounced by Sheridan's supporters for becoming a hostile witness. Being in court, neither she nor her friends could answer the attacks coming from outside.
As soon as Tommy won his case against the NoW, it was evident the newspaper would not let things rest. Nor would the Lothian and Borders Police, who were authorised to launch an investigation into Tommy and whether he had committed perjury. Some people have expressed outraged surprise at the way the state lined up with Murdoch's paper, and the outlay of public funds involved to bring a case against Tommy Sheridan. Over £1.5 million had been spent when the case opened. But outrageous as it may be, why should we be surprised that the capitalist state and a capitalist newspaper join forces to persecute a prominent socialist?
Or, for that matter, that the Scottish legal system might take a dim view of anybody it suspects of taking the piss?
The fact remains that it was Tommy Sheridan who took the initiative, against his comrades' advice, in bringing his private life into the courts, and in so doing and lying in court, not only opened the way for the Party's internal documents to be seized, but for party members to be called as witnesses, in what now became a criminal case, and either face contempt charges and jail if they refused to co-operate, or risk perjury charges themselves if they tried to lie for him.
At the annual conference of the SSP in early 2005 Sheridan was elected to the SSP executive and at the March 2006 conference he was elected as party co-chair. Some people outside the SSP, notably Respect MP George Galloway, writing in the Scottish 'Daily Mail', had urged him to break with his party. In August 2006, flush from his success in court, Sheridan did just that, accusing his former comrades of conspiring in "the mother of all stitch ups", together with Murdoch's News International and M15. The following month he announced the formation of his own new party, Solidarity, with himself and fellow MSP Rosemary Byrne as joint convenors.
In the 2007 election he failed to get re-elected, and though remaining politically active, he had to fall back on his celebrity status. He had a radio chat show, and a spot in the Edinburgh fringe, and he even followed George Galloway's example by going into the Big Brother House. Sheridan said he needed the money, and his appearance is said to have netted £100,000. He also demanded money back from the pool to which he and other Scottish Socialist MSPs had contributed, thus causing a problem with secretarial staff.
Meanwhile he continued to have his own media friends, getting support in the Herald and other papers, even the Telegraph carrying a piece asking whether News International was inspiring the police diligence. A rally with prominent speakers like Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Four and union leaders from the Fire Brigades Union and the RMT spoke on hs behalf, and later Tommy Sheridan stood as a candidate for No2EU, the alliance which the RMT backed.
In fact, some people who had never previously had time for Scottish Socialists, and particularly not for Tommy Sheridan - like the Socialist Workers Party, or the ex-Militant Committee for a Workers International(CWI), which had expelled him, and its English section the Socialist Party, rallied to his side when he broke with the SSP. They seem to have been undecided whether the original allegations about their new-found hero were untrue (as some of them evidently were, and the NoW admitted), or did not matter (in which case how do you make a case for defamation?). It seems the truth is not important. On the other hand, strangely -for people who are supposed to favour democratic centralism - they appear to think Sheridan had every right to ignore the advice of his party, but party members were then obliged to support their leader, at all costs, and whatever risk they ran.
Indeed one might have thought the former SSP leader was still being tried for his part in the poll tax fight, anti-war demonstrations or workers struggle, from the way his supporters have been throwing around words like "scab" or "traitor", and accusing those against him of being on the side of Murdoch, right from the start, from either long-term political differences or as yet unexplained baser motives. On Facebook yesterday I only had to suggest that Sheridan had been foolish, for someone I don't know to accuse me of being a pro-capitalist Murdoch supporter, etc. Just as well one can't ask people outside of online discussions, so I've contented myself with wishing the person a less than Happy Christmas.
None of this has done Tommy Sheridan, or the Left, any good. This case was bound to have a sad outcome for us, whichever way it went. We can only hope that with a new generation entering the political fray, the movement will get back on its feet, and learning what lessons it can, move on. Meanwhile, in this time of good cheer and goodwill, we can surely feel sympathy for Tommy Sheridan and his family, whatever we think of his all too human mistakes, and hope that after it is all over they will refind happiness.
I am not too sure about wishing the same to those who, under guise of leaping to his defence, jumped on the Scottish Socialist Party comrades, and showed no respect for truth or principle. Now the court case is over there are still issues to be settled for the working class.
pictures and some of the information from Scottish Socialist Youth, the Truth About Tommy Sheridan,
A good discussion on Scottish radio (thanks to comrades in Scotland for this: